THE HONORABLE DEBORAH J. DANIELS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS
CAROLE SUND CARRINGTON FOUNDATION
VIGIL OF HOPE
SATURDAY, MARCH 13, 2004
I'm honored to be here to participate in this Vigil of Hope for crime victims. I have so much admiration for Francis and Carole Carrington, who turned their own unspeakable tragedy into hope for others. Through their compassion and generosity, they have brought aid and comfort to other families who have a missing loved one, and have helped law enforcement bring offenders to justice. And with the help of the incomparable and indefatigable Kim Petersen and staff, they are making a significant difference.
For example, I know the Carrington Foundation has provided tremendous assistance to the family of Laci Petersen. Last night, I had the opportunity to talk with Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, and I wish them continued strength and courage as they endure the upcoming trial.
I have met many other families here. Some were drawn here to find information; some, to find solace. Still others are here simply because they understand and share your pain. There is also a tremendous sense of triumph over evil, and a desire to, like the Carringtons, find peace through helping others.
The Carrington Foundation and other victim advocates have been of huge comfort to victims and their families. And I want to thank all of you who serve crime victims for your efforts to bring help, healing, and hope to those who have suffered the painful effects of crime. Your work helps these families go on in spite of their horrible loss.
As a former U.S. Attorney in Indianapolis, and as a former Indianapolis, Indiana, prosecutor, I've seen first-hand how victims can be devastated - physically, emotionally, and financially - as a result of the crimes committed against them. And I've seen, far too often, how they are re-victimized by the very system that is supposed to ensure justice for victims.
But I've also seen how much the criminal justice system - and our entire nation - has improved its treatment of crime victims over the last several decades. Today, criminal justice practitioners are, for the most part, more sensitive to the rights and needs of crime victims. We still have work to do to help law enforcement agencies learn how to keep victims' needs in the forefront of their thought process, and to know how to help - but we've come a long way since I started prosecuting 25 years ago.
As Attorney General Ashcroft has said, at the Department of Justice, we are committed "to putting the interests of victims and their families first." That is why victims are an important part of many of the initiatives under way at the Office of Justice Programs, the large agency I head at the Department of Justice.
For those of you who aren't familiar with us, OJP is the Justice Department's primary source of assistance for state and local criminal and juvenile justice agencies. We work to improve the administration of justice in this country, to protect our communities from violence, and to preserve the rights of crime victims.
We rejoice at the findings of the most recent victims' survey, showing that crime is at its lowest rate in 30 years - and that literally over one million people in the past two years were spared the pain and anguish of victimization, as compared to just the preceding two years. And, comparing today's crime rate to 1973 - at the 1973 rate, 5.9 million more violent crimes would have occurred. This means that, by bringing the crime rate down so dramatically, 5.9 million people have been spared from the reach of violent crime. But that is still not good enough. We cannot rest until all our citizens are safe.
Although the Office for Victims of Crime leads our victim-related initiatives, efforts to ensure justice for crime victims and improve services to them are a critical component of much of the work we do at OJP. And it's important that we do more than just provide services after the harm is done.
After 9/11, President Bush said to Attorney General Ashcroft, "John, do not let this happen again." In response, the Attorney General called for a sea change in the mission of the Department of Justice. We were to begin immediately to focus, not just on reaction, but on prevention. At OJP, we are applying this prevention approach to everything we do.
For example, our Weed and Seed initiative is focused on reducing crime in high-crime neighborhoods, making them safer places for law-abiding citizens to live, work, and raise a family. Reducing victimization also is a key focus of another major Bush Administration initiative, called Project Safe Neighborhoods - PSN for short.
PSN works to prevent violent crime by targeting gun criminals for swift prosecution, and working with the public to implement local crime prevention strategies. In the last three years, through Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Justice Department has increased its prosecutions of gun criminals by 62 percent. And 90 percent of offenders prosecuted under PSN have been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
As a result, we are seeing a reduction in violent crimes being committed with weapons. For example, armed robberies are down in these communities, as bad guys are taken off the streets and as other criminals become afraid to be caught with a gun.
As Attorney General Ashcroft said in announcing these unprecedented results, through Project Safe Neighborhoods, "gun criminals are paying unprecedented penalties, and law-abiding Americans are enjoying unprecedented safety. Under President Bush's leadership, Project Safe Neighborhoods is making a tremendous difference in ensuring that gun crime means hard time."
We're also working to identify criminals, get them off our streets, provide justice for crime victims and their families, and prevent additional victimizations by increasing our nation's capacity to use DNA evidence. President Bush has committed to spending $1 billion, over a 5-year period, to increase our ability to identify active predators, thus saving countless members of our society from victimization by serial offenders.
One major goal of the President's DNA initiative is to eliminate the backlog of DNA samples awaiting analysis in crime labs across the country.
We estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of DNA samples from unsolved rape and murder cases sitting on shelves, while investigators wait for crucial information to help solve crimes, and countless victims await resolution to their cases.
The DNA Initiative provides funding to help the currently overwhelmed crime labs clear up this backlog, and improve their ability to analyze DNA evidence quickly and accurately, so that criminals are held accountable and crime victims receive the justice they deserve - while others are spared the terrible pain and anguish of victimization altogether.
As a part of our overall effort, we're also working to use DNA to identify missing persons and help bring to the families of victims at least the partial closure that comes with knowing what happened to a loved one. Again and again, families of the missing tell us that simply not knowing is the most difficult and painful part of the experience for them.
DNA has been a critical factor in some remarkable cases. Just a few weeks ago, a Philadelphia woman was reunited with her daughter, who had been thought killed in a house fire six years ago. The woman recently saw the girl at a neighborhood birthday party and recognized a dimple on the girl's face. She told the child she had gum in her hair and pulled out a few strands, which she later turned over to police for DNA testing. The tests confirmed the girl was the woman's daughter.
It turns out that a family friend set the house fire six years ago to cover up the baby's kidnapping. The mother and her daughter have now been happily reunited, and the child's abductor will be prosecuted.
We're also working to protect children by instituting a seamless network of AMBER Alert programs throughout the country. As many of you know, the AMBER Alert system began in 1996, when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children. The plan was created as a legacy to nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas, and then murdered. Following the lead of the innovative people of Dallas and Forth Worth, other states and communities soon set up AMBER plans.
I'm sure you recall the successful recovery of Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris here in California, just days after AMBER Alert had been implemented statewide. The two teen-agers had been abducted by a felon who was already wanted on rape charges. The abductor also stole a car, which was spotted on a remote, rural road by a local Animal Control officer. He had seen a description of the vehicle broadcast over the AMBER Alert System and called the information in to police. Law enforcement authorities think that the two girls were only minutes away from being killed by their abductor when they were rescued.
Since her terrible ordeal, Tamara Brooks and her mother, Sharon, have become strong advocates for AMBER Alert. Tamara, a remarkable and courageous young lady, recounted her harrowing experience at our first National AMBER Alert Conference. And Sharon Brooks is a member of our AMBER Alert Advisory Group, where she contributes an all-important victim's perspective.
But the AMBER Alert effort didn't really gain significant momentum until President Bush convened a White House Conference on Missing Children in October, 2002 and directed Attorney General Ashcroft to appoint a National AMBER Alert Coordinator to work to expand AMBER Alert nationwide. At that time, only eight states had statewide AMBER Alert plans.
As the National AMBER Alert Coordinator appointed by the Attorney General at the President's direction, I've been working with law enforcement, transportation, broadcast, and other officials, as well as victims' families, to implement a national strategy to help states develop AMBER Alert plans, and to enable them to coordinate and communicate with each other to increase the likelihood that abducted children will be recovered swiftly and safely.
I'm delighted to tell you that we've made phenomenal progress over the last year and a half toward meeting our goal of having a nationwide network of AMBER Alerts. All 48 contiguous states now have statewide AMBER Alert plans in place - that's up from only 8 in October of 2002. And we are working with Hawaii and Alaska to bring them on board, as well.
As of October, 2001, 16 children had been saved by the AMBER Alert plan. Last week, a missing North Dakota girl became the 126th child to be safely returned to her family with the aid of an AMBER Alert. Two-thirds of these AMBER recoveries have occurred just in the last year alone! I believe these success stories clearly demonstrate, not only the effectiveness of AMBER Alert, but also the importance of a national network that can help bring abducted children home. Children's lives are being saved almost every day by this remarkable partnership with the public.
We're now working to help communities and states enhance their own AMBER plans while linking them with each other all over the country. So, as actually happened last year, when a child is abducted in Minnesota - and the police learn through investigation that she may be taken to Utah - they can promptly get Utah officials to issue an alert.
We have many great partners in this effort. For example, we're coordinating with the National Association of Broadcasters, both to provide training for broadcasters and to develop public service announcements to increase public awareness about AMBER Alert. Of course, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, whose good work we have funded for many years, is also a critical partner in our efforts.
With the help of these and other federal initiatives, and work at the grass-roots level by you and your colleagues all across the country, we are increasing the safety of our communities and reducing victimization. Working together, we can prevent many people from having to endure the pain that so many of you here today have suffered.
In closing, I want to thank all of you who work so tirelessly on behalf of crime victims, for the tremendous contribution you make every day in aiding the members of our society who have suffered the anguish of victimization. As the Attorney General has said, you "exemplify the model of service to our nation that President Bush has challenged all Americans to emulate." You have made an incalculable difference in the lives of victims throughout the country, and in the safety of your communities.
And to the families of the missing, and those who have experienced the ultimate loss: please know that we at the Department of Justice will continue to do everything we can to help you to cope, and to heal. You are in our thoughts and prayers daily. Thank you so much for the honor and privilege of addressing you today.